“[In the Warsaw ghetto] A few days before Rosh Ha-Shanah, 1941, Dr. Janusz Korczak asked me whether I could help him organize Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services for 150 orphan children. He wanted the services to be properly organized, in order to impress the children. ‘In these terrible times,’ he said, ‘religion is our only positive force, our only safeguard.’ I was surprised. Dr. Korczak had not been a religious Jew. He was an assimilationist who had been out touch with religious Jewish life’.” [1]

 

At first, I posted the anecdote alone, directly after the end of Yom Kippur. I thought that it spoke for itself. I had originally included it in a piece I was writing (off-blog) on the role of ritual.

I had no known close relatives in the Warsaw ghetto, or anywhere in the Holocaust. Distant relatives? Almost certainly, but unknown to anyone in my family. Once the grandparents came here (paternal and maternal), links to the “old country” were sundered completely.

Yet, of all the incidents in the Shoah, the Warsaw ghetto has always moved me the most personally. I seemed to relate to the feeling of helplessness facing doom courageously.

In this anecdote, a non-religious Jewish intellectual/professional, one with perhaps little or no formal training in Jewish observance, calls upon it to help uplift the spirits of 150 orphaned children.

“Orphaned” is almost a euphemism. Their parents had all been murdered (save for the very small number who might have passed away from natural causes). I can hardly imagine their distress at the loss of their parents as individuals, at the loss of their family structure, at their forced separation from everything and every place familiar to them, into a “ghetto” under the threat of imminent destruction.

The organizer, Dr. Korszak, would seemingly never have considered attending services or turning to religion under better circumstances.  Yet there, in the Warsaw Ghetto, an enclosed area that was almost a horrendous mockery of the Garden of Eden — another enclosed area — this good man recognized with his heart that there was some peace to be had in doing a service.

I imagine that the children (and the participating adults) felt some relief while the service was going on; probably for a while afterwards, too. For a few minutes or hours, their hearts and minds were turned from the horror around them to the soothing presence of G-d. It wasn’t an intellectual understanding. It wasn’t a critical appreciation of the structure of the service — although was that among the thoughts of some of them, too? It was simply the feeling that at that moment — those moments — they were talking to G-d; G-d was aware of them.

Dr. Korszak knew that in his heart, too, however much his intellect might have rejected it. And as the High Holidays approached — in “hell,” as it were — this good man’s heart spoke louder in him than all the well-thought out denials by his trained intellect.

At that moment, he became a model for us all.

The High Holidays are about our hearts far more than about our intellects.

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[1Zylberberg, Michael; Yom Kippur in the Warsaw Ghetto;
from
Goodman, Rabbi Phillip, ed.; The Yom Kippur Anthology; Jewish Publication Society, © 1971, p. 205